It is astonishing that there is not a complete recording of Charles Villiers Stanford’s songs. A brave attempt was made by Hyperion Records with their remarkable two volumes (CDA 67123 and 67124) issued in 2000, featuring Stephen Varcoe and Clifford Benson. Prior to this survey, Hyperion had also issued an LP entitled Stanford: Songs from the Elfin Pedlar in 1982 (A66058). Tenor James Griffett was accompanied once again by Clifford Benson in a selection of Stanford’s Irish folk arrangements, and several original songs including The Fairy Lough, The Bold Unbiddable Child and The Monkey’s Carol. I have not heard this album, and I understand that it has not been reissued on CD or download. There have been several Stanford songs included in compilations and recitals by singers as talented as Kathleen Ferrier and John Shirley-Quirk. Interestingly, a new recording of Stanford Songs is due to be released in mid-January 2020 by Somm (SOMMCD 0627). It features Roderick Williams (baritone), James Way (tenor) and Andrew West (piano). Except for The Triumph of Love op.82 there is little duplication with the present CD.
Stanford’s song catalogue runs to several pages: in the liner notes, Howell considers its extent. Much depends on what is counted. It is reckoned that there are some 200 art songs and approximately 300 folksongs which were also intended for the recital room. Many of the latter were Irish songs, but also included several French melodies and a German tune.
I do not intend to comment on each number on thus disc, but a few random thoughts may be of interest. For me, the major work here is the Five Sonnets from The Triumph of Love op.82 (1903). These are setting of poems by the educationalist, writer and poet Edmond Holmes (1850-1936). The booklet explains the complex background to these poems, which refer to the author’s rather individual theological syncretism. On the other hand, this collection may have been written for Stanford’s 25th wedding anniversary: it remains a debatable conceit. I find these symphonically conceived songs moving and powerful but do not need an esoteric underpinning to enjoy. That said, despite the text being a little over blown, the bottom line is “Amor vincit omnia” – Love conquers everything.
Die Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar op.72 (1898) is a song cycle with a story. Unfortunately, this narrative is, to modern minds, somewhat unpalatable. Involving extravagant Roman Catholic superstition about Our Lady’s role in the lives and deaths of individuals, it is fair to wonder why the Protestant Stanford chose to set it. Yet, once again, this is a story of love reaching beyond death, and as such it is a beautifully realised setting of Heine’s verse. Perhaps this is a lesson to us all: mythological narrative can be used to powerfully express deeper truths, irrespective of source.
I did wonder why only two of the Four Songs op.125 (1911), had been included here. The reason is simple: the subject matter of first two is suitable for a female singer and the final two for a male voice. They were originally written for Dame Clara Butt and her husband, the baritone Kennerley Rumford. The liner notes state that songs are “too disparate to be called a cycle”. The soprano has a Shelley setting, coupled to an Irish idyll by Winifred Letts (1882-1972). These are “melodious songs of the superior ballad type.” (Porte, 1921). The other two (unrecorded here) are Phoebe by Thomas Lodge, and Shelley’s The Song of the Spirit of the House.
Other songs on this album include Stanford’s only setting of a text by Rabbie Burns, Dainty Davie. This is sung with an Irish accent! The Corsican Dirge is exactly that. Elizabeth Barratt Browning’s May’s Love is operatic in effect but effective all the same. The earliest piece here is Keats’s La Belle Dame sans Merci composed in 1877. It is a significant, if somewhat melodramatic, song with lots of variation of the “bardic melody” and an orchestrally conceived piano part.
The liner notes by Christopher Howell are excellent, with much helpful information about the song cycles and the individual numbers. One disappointment was the lack of texts in the CD booklet. However, they are all available at the invaluable Lieder Text Site maintained by Emily Ezust. I do think that this is less than ideal, as it requires some organisation to follow the text when listening.
I enjoyed Elisabetta Paglia’s
performance of all these songs. She has a rich and beguiling voice.
Occasionally her pronunciation is a touch idiosyncratic (“doth” should
be sung “duhth”) and now and again the words in this recoding are just a little
bit indistinct, at least to my aging ears. She has a notable CV, with many
operatic roles to her credit, including Dorabella in Cosi fan Tutte, Siébel
in Gounod’s Faust and Tisbe in Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Paglia has
sung the solo part in Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater and Gloria. Her
repertoire is wide ranging, from the 18th century to the present.
The contribution of the accompanist is sometimes forgotten in recitals. Here Christopher Howell’s playing is of the highest standard throughout. His deep scholarly knowledge is essential to the realisation of this album. He has completed several other important projects, including Stanford’s complete piano music and violin and piano works. The two soloists worked together on the enjoyable My Heart is Like a Singing Bird : Song settings of poetry by Christina Rossetti issued by Sheva Records in 2013 (SH076, and reviewed here).
I guess that I hoped the Varcoe/Benson CDs would have turned into a complete survey. That was not to happen. So, I wonder if Christopher Howell’s venture is going to expand to cover all bases. Clearly, he will have to add to the list of performers to include a male voice. I understand that several tracks for a second volume have been laid down, and that there are potential plans for a third. Looking at catalogue suggests that many volumes will be required if all the songs, both art and folk, are to receive a recording.
This is a remarkable CD with the potential to provide the first complete cycle of Charles Villiers Stanford’s songs. This oeuvre is a major element of British/Irish song writing. It deserves to succeed. I can honestly say that I have rarely heard a song by Stanford that I have not relishedCharles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Elisabetta Paglia (mezzo-soprano; Christopher Howell (piano)
Rec. Studios of Griffa & Figli s.r.l., Milan, Italy, 27 October & 24 November 2018
Da Vinci Classics C00304 [65:50]
1. O one deep sacred outlet of my soul
2. Like as the thrush in winter
3. When in the solemn stillness of the night
4. I think that we were children
5. O flames of passion
Die Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar op.72 (1898)
1. Am Fenster stand die Mutter
2. Die Mutter-Gottes zu Kevlaar
3. Der kranke Sohn und die Mutter
Four Songs op.125 (1911)
1. The Song of Asia
2. John Kelly
Dainty Davie (1905)
A Corsican Dirge (1892)
May’s Love (c.1884)
A Japanese Lullaby (1918)
The Linnet (1902)
Der Kukkuk (German folk song arr. Stanford) (1908)
La Belle Dame sans Merci (1877)
The Calico Dress (1896)